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Farid Senzai Headshot

The Many Shades of Islamists

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Even before Tunisia's Islamist movement Ennahda won the Oct. 23 national elections there was intense international concern that Islamists would likely dominate the post-authoritarian Arab political landscape. Ennahda led by its founder and Islamist theoretician Rachid Ghannouchi has emerged as the victor with the party obtaining 90 seats in a new 217-member constituent assembly. This first Islamist victory in the aftermath of the Arab unrest has magnified the fear that Islamists will sweep to power across the region, especially with Egyptian elections just around the corner and the Muslim Brotherhood poised to dominate.

These global apprehensions as well as those within the country (where well over half of the electorate didn't vote for Ghannouchi's group) has the Ennahda leadership going out of its way to prove its moderation and commitment to democracy and the secular state. Soon after Ennahda was officially declared the winner, Ghannouchi declared: "We will continue this revolution to realize its aims of a Tunisia that is free, independent, developing and prosperous in which the rights of God, the Prophet, women, men, the religious and the non-religious are assured because Tunisia is for everyone."

Many observers have suggested that the Tunisian movement is similar to Turkey's governing Justice & Development Party (AKP). Such comparisons are of course natural given that the AKP has come a long way from its own Islamist roots and is seen by many outside observers as a model worthy of emulation. And of course there is the need for a template on the basis of which to understand the nature of the Tunisian movement and what to expect from it as it moves from being an opposition group to holding the reins of power.

But the reality is that Islamism is a complex phenomena with many different shades. Most policy makers, including many experts, are unable to accurately distinguish between the various types of Islamist movements in a given country let alone across national boundaries. One way to conceptualize Islamism is in the form of a spectrum, which ranges from violent groups (such as al Qaeda) that reject secularism, democracy and the nation-state, to more moderate groups, like the AKP, which embrace these ideas. More importantly there is a desire that the meltdown of authoritarian republics will somehow lead to an atmosphere where eventually Islamists in the Arab world will behave more or less like Turkey's AKP. The problem with that expectation is that it ignores the fact that both Islamism and secularism have developed in different historic contexts. Therefore, each Islamist movement will seek accommodation with the incumbent secular order in their own particular way.

There is a reason why the AKP turned out the way it did. It grew out of the movement founded by Necmettin Erbakan, whose Islamism was shaped by the country's Ottoman heritage, which since the 18th century had adopted a relatively liberal and modern view of the role of religion in public affairs. More importantly, it was tempered by the unique form of secularism instituted by the state founded by Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk," which was largely embraced by society.

In contrast, in the Arab world, by and large, religious discourse remained traditional and conservative and state-driven secularism never truly permeated the societies. Furthermore, unlike the democratic experience of Turkey, Arab states remained either autocratic republics or monarchies. The result has been that Arab Islamist groups (to varying degrees) have not exactly become comfortable with secularism.

This can be seen in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood response to the remarks made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep T. Erdogan during his recent visit to Cairo in which he called for a secular constitution for the Arab state. The Muslim Brotherhood quickly rebuked the Turkish premier suggesting his comments as interference in Egypt's local affairs. The brotherhood's spokesman, Dr. Mahmoud Ghuzlan, was quoted by an Egyptian daily as saying that the experiments of other countries should not be cloned. "Turkey's conditions imposed on it to deal with the secular concept," he said.

To a much lesser degree, it can be seen in Ghannouchi's statements, which speaks of the role of Islam in politics, even as the Ennahda leader stresses that his party seeks a constitution for Tunisia that is not based on religion. A clear difference between the AKP and Ennahda is that the latter's political program remains tied to religion while religion is virtually absent from discourse and behavior. Here it should be noted that Ennahda is the most liberal of all Islamist political parties, especially when compared to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its counterparts elsewhere who in turn are more moderate than the Salafists.

Islamist movements seeking power via democracy will behave differently based on the country's historic experiences with Islamism and secularism. What this means is that democratization in each country will lead to a particular hue along the political shades of Islamist movements. Thus, while Turkey's AKP might be a model that many desire for Islamists in the Arab world, we should not expect Islamists in the Arab world, or for that matter across the Muslim world, to start behaving like their Turkish counterparts.

Kamran Bokhari, Vice-President, Middle Eastern & South Asian Affairs at STRATFOR is also a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Farid Senzai, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Santa Clara University is a Fellow and Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). They are working on a forthcoming book entitled 'Political Islam in All Its Complexity' to be published by Palgrave MacMillan. The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and not those of any of the aforementioned institutions.

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